With the first College Football Playoff rankings coming out Monday, everything will be revolving around Columbus this week when No. 2 Penn State takes on No. 6 Ohio State.
It will most certainly weigh heavily in the argument over who is the Big Ten’s best bet to make the sport’s final four. But can it clinch the Heisman Trophy, as one analyst said — ahem, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit — before the calendar has even flipped to November?
Let’s slow our roll ever so slightly.
Yes, the Nittany Lions’ Saquon Barkley — the nation’s leader at 211.1 all-purpose yards per game and 10th in scoring at 10.3 per -- is the odds-on favorite to claim the award. Plus, the running back can all but remove at least another contender in Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett, who has rebounded from a dismal game vs. Oklahoma on Sept. 9 to produce 313.9 yards of offense per week.
If Barkley can do what he did against Michigan — which a week ago had the nation’s best defense at 223.8 yards per game and proceeded to give up 161 to the RB on 18 touches — in Columbus, it could potentially give him one of the strongest grips on the trophy at this point in the season since Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010.
But let’s not hand over the hardware, as the two most intriguing candidates outside of Barkley have more chances down the stretch to win over voters.
Seven years ago, Newton was being tracked down by a West Coast running back who was leading the nation in rushing, as well as a Stanford star in QB Andrew Luck. This time around, you can roll those two into one with Cardinal RB Bryce Love, who may have the best chance of anyone not named Saquon Barkley to claim the trophy.
It helps Love’s chances that his schedule only heats up, with No. 15 Washington State, No. 12 Washington and No. 9 Notre Dame in the coming month, along with a potential Pac-12 title game spot.
But then there’s Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, who has a closing stretch of No. 11 Oklahoma State, unbeaten and fourth-ranked TCU and No. 22 West Virginia, along with a shot at a berth in the first Big 12 Championship Game.
While the Nittany Lions could potentially meet an unbeaten Wisconsin for the Big Ten crown, a final stretch of games like Love and Mayfield have is the one thing Barkley doesn’t have. Penn State’s final three games before Championship Weekend are Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland.
Will that hurt him? Can he do enough vs. the Buckeyes and the following week at No. 16 Michigan State to make the final month a victory lap?
It figures to be one of the most riveting aspects of this race, especially if Barkley is dominant in Columbus. But let’s be clear: as much as Saturday can elevate Barkley, Love and Mayfield are going to have a say in this.
Before we look at this week’s players on the rise and those who are falling in the race, here’s where the Forecaster’s virtual ballot stands heading into Week 9.
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB
2. Bryce Love, Stanford RB
3. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB
USA TODAY NETWORKChris Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
ON THE RISE: Bryce Love, Stanford RB
Here’s how prolific Love has been on the season: he had last week off … and he still leads the nation in rushing by a whopping 245 yards overall and 275 more than the next-best Power 5 player, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor.
Playing late-night West Coast games has been to the detriment of other contenders from his region — just look at former Cardinal RB Christian McCaffrey for proof there — but Love has a nice chance at owning the spotlight on Thursday night on the road vs. Oregon State.
There’s no World Series game to go up against and the Thursday night NFL game is the 4-2 Dolphins vs. the 3-4 Ravens, so there’s no excuse for people not tuning in. The Beavers are 100th in the nation vs. the rush, giving up over 200 yards per game.
Russell IsabellaRuss Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
ON THE RISE: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin RB
Speaking of the Power 5 player that’s right behind Love in rushing yards, Taylor has been on an absolute tear with 594 yards in his last three games combined and in doing so became just the sixth freshman in FBS history — and the fourth from a major program -- to reach 1,000 yards in his first seven games. The others? Emmitt Smith (Florida), Marshall Faulk (San Diego State), Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma), Jamario Thomas (North Texas) and another Badger, P.J. Hill.
The fact remains that with a schedule thad doesn't include a single Top-25 opponent, it’s going to be tough for Taylor to rise above his fellow Big Ten contenders until he likely gets a crack at either Barkley or Barrett in the conference title game. But in averaging 158.9 rushing yards per game and facing just one opponent — Michigan — that is allowing less than 133.9 ypg — in the regular season, there’s a very real chance that Taylor flirts with a 2,000-yard season.
Jeff HanischJeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
ON THE RISE: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State QB
Texas held Rudolph to his first game without a passing touchdown since last last season vs. Oklahoma and his 282 yards were a season low, and his worst output since that game against the Sooners in 2016.
So why have Rudolph among this week’s On The Rise players? It’s because his candidacy is about to be defined over the next three weeks, beginning Saturday with a trip to No. 22 West Virginia, followed by the Bedlam Game with the 10th-ranked Sooners and No. 25 Iowa State, both of which are in Stillwater.
Owners of the nation’s 105th-ranked pass defense (261.3), Rudolph should star to increase his trophy case Saturday in Morgantown.
Erich SchlegelErich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
FALL GUYS: Josh Adams, Notre Dame RB
Your late entry into the race makes an intriguing case as the Fighting Irish build their College Football Playoff profile.
Seventh in FBS at 967 yards and sixth with 138.1 per game, Adams has rattled off three straight games with at least 118 yards, including 191 vs. USC last time out. But the two best defenses he’s all season have more than held him in check, with Michigan State limiting Adams to 56 yards on nine carries and he had 53 yards on 19 attempts vs. Georgia.
NC State, which is sixth against the rush (91.3) is poised to follow suit.
Matt CashoreMatt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
FALL GUYS: Sam Darnold, USC QB
Yes, it’s that time of year when talk of zombies permeates the air … but Darnold does feel like the walking dead as far as this race is concerned.
He’s no longer getting odds per sports book Bovada as he and the Trojans suffered that aforementioned loss to Notre Dame, which all but ended their CFP dreams.
This week’s opponent, Arizona State and its 98th-ranked pass D should provide the stage for Darnold to get back on track statistically, but with no more Top 25 opponents (outside of the Pac-12 title game), Darnold has stopped being a factor in the race.
Matt CashoreMatt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
FALL GUYS: Will Grier, West Virginia QB
Grier is putting up ridiculous numbers, which should come to the dismay of his former team, Florida. He averaging over 350 passing yards per game, which is almost double the output of Florida’s offense at 181 ypg, and he’s thrown for 21 more TDs than the Gators have on the season at five.
But while Rudolph’s star will rise in the race in Oklahoma State-West Virginia, Grier’s will take a step back vs. a QB that’s been just a little more efficient, with Grier posting a 172.3 rating to Rudolph’s 181.1.